Sabrina Sojourner (D)
Born October 23, 1952
U.S. “Shadow” Representative, District of Columbia
Elected May 1994 to At-Large Seat, Central Democratic Committee
Elected U.S. Representative, District of Columbia November 1996
Sabina Sojourner's story is detailed in Ken Yeager's Trailblazers: Profiles of America's Gay and Lesbian elected Officials. She was the first openly lesbian African American elected to Congress.
Interview with Sabrina Sojourner for Out and Elected in the USA
The office holder of Representative for the District of Columbia is frequently referred to as the “Shadow Rep.” It is not an official title, but it’s popular usage distinguishes the non-voting nature of the office. Sojourner is the subject of a chapter in Trail Blazers: Profiles of America’s Gay and Lesbian Elected Officials by Ken Yeager (The Hawthorn Press, 1999).
Q: Tell me about this rather unique office of U.S. Representative for the District of Columbia and something of its history and purpose.
A: The U.S. Representative for the District of Columbia is in many ways an elected lobbyist for the District in that D.C. has no voting representation – and that is the key word, voting representation – in the U.S. House of Representatives, and no representation whatsoever in the U.S. Senate. People say it’s because of the Constitution and that the District was created that way, and in fact that’s not true. There is nothing in the constitution that says we are not entitled to a vote or representation. And while it does say Congress has the legislative responsibility for the District of Columbia, it does not say we can’t be represented in that legislature. So, it’s basically a Constitutional quandary into which, because of racism and “tradition,” the Congress has gotten itself into. That’s another long story I won’t get into here.
One of the most important things for people to know is that when this country was first established, as most do know, it was based on an Athenian model of Democracy. What we’re not told about that Athenian model is that it was about “equality among equals.” Wealth, according to Aristotle, was what made one a citizen. He believed that what we are actually trying to do in this country in our time is “extreme Democracy,” and not desirable. That said, until 1833 in this country, being white and male and land-owning was what one needed generally to qualify for citizenship. This was expanded in 1833 to include people who were basically middle class, served in the military and/or paid taxes. It is important for people to understand that we fulfill all of our obligations when it comes to being citizens of the United States in that we own and improve land, serve in the military and/or pay taxes. Though we are lumped in with the rest of the territories we are in fact different because we pay federal taxes. Also different from the rest of the territories, our government is not independent of the federal government. Every law passed is reviewed by Congress and our budget is reviewed by Congress even though at this point 97 percent of the money comes from our taxes. Yet Congress can change any line item they want and they have. Congress can revoke any of our laws, which they have. We don’t even have the same independence other territories have in terms of being able to live by the rule of their own law.
So the primary purpose of this position is to fight for and to lobby for full constitutional standing, and to educate both people who reside in the District of Columbia as well as people across the country to the fact that we do not have constitutional standing before the federal government. What we are to do is to push for that. A lot of people see it as only being about statehood. One of the things that I was able to do, starting with my campaign, was to get people to understand that it is not about statehood, it is about constitutional standing. Right now, one of the ways is through statehood, but that is not the only avenue. There are other ways in which that can be done, but it is about having full constitutional standing before the federal government. One other important note is that we are the only residents of a capitol of a country who are treated differently than the rest of the residents of the country, regardless of the type of government that there is. The residents of Beijing, and I use that as an extreme, have the same rights as everybody else who lives in China. The residents of Paris have the same rights as everybody else who lives in France. The residents of Havana have the same rights as everybody else who lives in Cuba. We are the only capitol of a country in which the residents are treated differently.
Q: Where do you see this is all going?
A: Well, actually, I think it’s improved. In large part, some of the things that I put into motion when I was in office are now being carried forward by our current delegate, which is something I could not do during that time period. I believe we are going to get full constitutional standing. I’m not sure when that’s going to be, but there are certain things that have happened in terms of the lawsuits, which the Supreme Court would not even hear, that received wide notice and debate including coverage on National Public Radio. There is a new bill that our current representative, Congresswoman Norton, is introducing – I’ve always said we need to keep finding actions that keep it a national conversation. Most recently, there have been municipalities passing resolutions supporting our right to constitutional standing. The focus is on having a vote in Congress in the House and in the Senate. It has to be both to have full constitutional standing.
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